Inter Milan are counting on prolific striker Romelu Lukaku to power the former three-time winners into the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday in a must-win clash against Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Belgian scored a double in a 3-2 win over Borussia Moenchengladbach last time out to keep the Italian giants alive in the continental competition whose knockout rounds they have not reached since the 2011-2012 season.
Bottom of Group B, Inter need to win at the San Siro and for ‘Gladbach and Real Madrid not to draw their match.
“I’ve never played so well in my life,” said Lukaku after bagging four goals in as many European games this season.
In total, the Belgian has scored 12 goals in 13 games this season, including the opener at the weekend in a 3-1 Serie A win over Bologna.
For 27-year-old Lukaku it is the first time in his career that he has scored more than seven goals in his first 10 league games of the season.
Lukaku has come into his own since joining Antonio Conte’s side from Manchester United in 2019 for 80 million euros ($89 million).
In his first season Lukaku scored 34 goals in all competitions, matching the performance of Brazilian Ronaldo in his debut season for Inter in 1997-1998.
The Belgian’s high energy levels and sharp play at Inter are in contrast to United where he spent two seasons, scoring 42 goals in 96 appearances, but just 15 goals in his final season.
He was never far from fan criticism, over his weight and professionalism, as he fell down the pecking order once Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho.
But Lukaku has found a rich vein of form at Inter alongside Argentine Lautaro Martinez and former United teammate Alexis Sanchez.
Conte had been a long-time admirer of Lukaku, who started his career at Anderlect, and tried to sign him for Chelsea before the Belgian’s move from Everton to United.
His move to Italy at the same time as Conte, was also eased by the presence of his brother Jordan Lukaku, 25, who played as a defender for Lazio.
Inter finished second in Serie A last season, one point behind Juventus, although Lukaku’s own goal in the Europa League final handed Sevilla victory.
– ‘Rough diamond’ –
Inter have scored 26 goals from their first 10 matches, their best haul at this stage since the 2009/2010 campaign when they won an unprecedented treble under Mourinho.
“Romelu can still get better,” predicted Conte whose side are second in Serie A, five points behind city rivals AC Milan.
“I described him as a rough diamond when he arrived. I felt that by putting in the work, he could become one of the best strikers in the world.
“He’s like an American football player.
“He’s on the right track because he’s a humble player who works hard for the team and has everything in his locker — physical qualities and also the running ability to make a mark on an open pitch.
“I’m happy with him, the team, with Lautaro and with Sanchez, who could become even more decisive and score a few more goals given the qualities he possesses.
“However, he previously barely played at all for two years while at Manchester United, now he’s playing a lot of games and can also be a decisive player when coming off the bench.”
Former Juventus and Chelsea manager Conte is bidding to avoid a financially-damaging fourth group stage exit from the Champions League.
The 51-year-old’s best result as a coach was leading Juventus to the 2012/13 quarter-finals, and he reached the last 16 with Chelsea in 2017-2018.
“It’ll be a tough game because Shakhtar could go through if they get a good result, but we also want to play our own hand,” said Conte.
“We need to react as a team and show the right level of maturity. It’s one more step for us but we’re well up for it and our morale is high.”